For South Carolina’s beleaguered offensive line, last Saturday’s matchup against Arkansas was a welcome change, a dominant performance that the unit will now attempt to convert into the starting point of a new resurgence.
Facing the Razorbacks, the Gamecocks’ front five allowed only one sack and one quarterback hit, both tied for season lows, while springing the running game for a season-best 4.4 yards per carry.
This success came even as the unit started its fourth different variation in five weeks. Of USC’s five opening starters, three have been injured, forcing players without much game experience into the lineup.
As a result, the line’s statistics place them squarely in the bottom tier of college football thus far. South Carolina is one of the worst teams in the country at running the ball, ranking 121st in the FBS, and protecting its quarterback, ranking 104th in sacks allowed.
But the Arkansas game changed things, giving coach Will Muschamp, sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley and even the offensive line itself hope that it can become a strength, not a weakness.
“I think that was something we needed. We needed to show our team we can be trusted,” redshirt junior offensive guard Donell Stanley said of Saturday’s game.
“We felt like the previous games, we didn’t have as good of a run game, but we felt like we started to open up that game,” redshirt sophomore running back A.J. Turner said.
“It goes a big way for their confidence, really,” Bentley said. “They’re starting to play better ... knowing they can do it, they can move people out of a gap for our running game to get going, they can give me enough time.”
This week, the O-line will face a Tennessee defense that ranks last in the SEC in rushing defense but first in passing yards allowed. And while some of that is due to the fact that the Volunteers have already played the nation’s top rushing team in Georgia Tech, South Carolina sees an opportunity.
“We want to run the ball more against Tennessee,” Stanley said bluntly.
“Everyone thinks we can throw the ball, but we can run the ball too, and that’s something that we’re trying to work on more, just getting more run opportunities and being able to produce in the run game,” Turner said
Bentley, for his part, is all for getting the running game going.
“The quarterback’s best friend is the running game,” he said.
It’s unclear who exactly will start for the Gamecocks on Saturday, as Muschamp said that injured starters Zack Bailey, Cory Helms and Malik Young could all potentially return this week, with Bailey and Helms practicing Tuesday. In their place, however, redshirt freshman Sadarius Hutcherson, junior Blake Camper and redshirt senior D.J. Park have all earned positive reviews from their teammates.
“I was really proud of them, not being first team and still coming up in game-time situations, stepping in and playing in the game for us, it’s a really big thing, and they did a really good job,” Turner said of the replacements.
Still, Muschamp sees continued room for improvement for the unit.
“We need to continue to evolve this week in a matchup against a very good Tennessee front,” he said.